LISTENING TO Judge Clarence Thomas talk so movingly about the old-fashioned values he learned from his hard-working grandfather, I thought back to my childhood and my grandfather and some of the things he taught me.
I couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 years old when he swiveled on his bar stool and said: "Listen to me. Never trust a Russian."
Because of my youth, I didn't know what a Russian was. So I asked him.
He said: "A Russian is no good."
I asked him why a Russian was no good.
He said: "Never mind. Drink your ginger ale."
But I never forgot his admonition. Especially since he told me the same thing every Saturday, when he would come over and take me for a walk.
We never walked far. Only one block up Wolcott Avenue to the nearest tavern on Division Street, which in those days was known as Polish Broadway.
In two or three years, I knew what a Russian was. And that confused me because World War II had begun and the Russians were our heroic allies.
When I asked him about that, he shook his head and said: "Never trust a Russian."
When I asked my mother why my grandfather said that, she explained: "He doesn't like Russians."
I asked her why, and she said: "He doesn't trust them."
Then the war ended, and the Russians became the Evil Empire, and it turned out my grandfather had been right. At least for almost 50 years. And who can be sure about tomorrow?
It was only one of many valuable things he taught me.
As he sat in the tavern drinking his Saturday steins of beer, he would always say: "Tell your mother we went to Wicker Park."
The first time he said that I asked him why.
He said: "Because she told me to take you to Wicker Park."
I asked him why we didn't go to Wicker Park.
"Because I don't like Wicker Park. Too many flies and bugs. This is better."
So I would tell my mother that we had gone to Wicker Park, and that seemed to please her. And not going to Wicker Park pleased my grandfather. It also pleased me since I preferred drinking ginger ale in the cool bar. That meant that all three of us were pleased. But if we had gone to Wicker Park, my grandfather and I wouldn't have been as pleased. So I learned that freedom of choice and movement is what makes people happy. And I didn't like bugs, either.
He would also say: "Always take care of your brushes."
Few children get that advice from their grandfathers today. Modern grandfathers are more likely to say: "Why don't you see what's on the other channel?" or "Can't you turn that music down?" or "Did I tell you I shot an 89 with a double bogey on the last hole?" There probably isn't a child in America whose grandfather says: "Always take care of your brushes."
He said that because he was a professional painter.
Not pictures, houses. Fine brushes, in all sizes, with wood handles and animal-hair fibers, were costly. And the paint of those days couldn't be washed off with water. The brushes had to be soaked and washed in some chemical that today's youths would sniff.
"If you don't take care of your brushes, you won't get work and you'll be a bum. You don't want to be like the Swede."
As he later explained, when I was old enough to understand, the Swede had been his regular partner. But the Swede drank while working. He said it immunized him against the fumes from the paint. So he often became so immunized that he failed to take care of his brushes. Then he had to buy new brushes and had less profit, and his wife rebuked him. And this caused him to brood, as Swedes are inclined to do, and he drank even more while working. And it became a vicious circle, ruined brushes, paint dripping in his eyes and finally disaster. He staggered off a scaffold and broke both legs.
Being a true friend, my grandfather went to the bed-ridden Swede's house and said: "You're out of work and you need money. Here, take this."
And he put $250 cash in the Swede's hand, a hefty sum in those days, and bought the Swede's car, for which the Swede had paid $400 three months earlier.
"I wouldn't have done that for a Russian," my grandfather said.
And that taught me about private enterprise and the free-market system.
Anyway, these memories came back as I listened to Judge Thomas remember his grandfather.
And when Sen. Ted Kennedy began grilling Judge Thomas on his social views, I thought about what my grandfather might have said to the senator.
Probably something like: "Stay off scaffolds."